Photo : Jonathan Sacks: ‘We have an antisemite as the leader of the Labour party.’ Photograph: Toby Melville/PA
Published on August 28 in The Guardian
The former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks has called Jeremy Corbyn an antisemite, saying the Labour leader's comment about Zionists at a 2013 conference was the most offensive statement by a senior UK politician since Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech.
Labour dismissed the comparison with Powell as “absurd and offensive”.
In an interview, Sacks, who was the UK’s chief rabbi from 1991 to 2013, said Corbyn had “given support to racists, terrorists and dealers of hate who want to kill Jews and remove Israel from the map”.
He said: “Now, within living memory of the Holocaust, and while Jews are being murdered elsewhere in Europe for being Jews, we have an antisemite as the leader of the Labour party and Her Majesty’s opposition. That is why Jews feel so threatened by Mr Corbyn and those who support him.”
Sacks condemned Corbyn’s 2013 comments, which resurfaced last week, in which he said that a group of Zionists had “no sense of irony” despite “having lived in this country for a very long time”.
The remarks prompted criticism from a number of MPs. In a subsequent statement, Corbyn said he had used the word Zionist “in the accurate political sense and not as a euphemism for Jewish people”, adding that he was now more careful in how he used the term.
But Sacks told the New Statesman he was aghast at the remarks, making a parallel with Powell’s infamous 1968 speech, in which the then-Conservative shadow cabinet member was roundly condemned for inflammatory rhetoric about immigration.
“The recently disclosed remarks by Jeremy Corbyn are the most offensive statement made by a senior British politician since Enoch Powell’s 1968 ‘rivers of blood’ speech,” he said.
“It was divisive, hateful and like Powell’s speech it undermines the existence of an entire group of British citizens by depicting them as essentially alien. We can only judge Jeremy Corbyn by his words and his actions … When he implies that, however long they have lived here, Jews are not fully British, he is using the language of classic prewar European antisemitism.
“When challenged with such facts, the evidence for which is before our eyes, first he denies, then he equivocates, then he obfuscates. This is low, dishonest and dangerous. He has legitimised the public expression of hate, and where he leads, others will follow.”
Sacks said Jews had contributed to every aspect of British life for more than three and a half centuries. “We know our history better than Mr Corbyn, and we have learned that the hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews. Mr Corbyn’s embrace of hate defiles our politics and demeans the country we love.”
A Labour spokeswoman said: “This comparison with the race-baiting Enoch Powell is absurd and offensive. Jeremy Corbyn described a particular group of pro-Israel activists as Zionists, in the accurate political sense – not as a synonym or code for Jewish people.
“Jeremy Corbyn is determined to tackle antisemitism both within the Labour party and in wider society, and the Labour party is committed to rebuilding trust with the Jewish community.”
Sacks is a particularly well-known figure in Britain’s Jewish community, renowned as an intellectual and communicator. Though he was chief rabbi for the majority of British Jews from the modern Orthodox tradition, he did not represent the significant minority of British Jews from the progressive Reform movement, and he has previously taken some robust stances in support of Israeli policies.
In the New Statesman interview, Sacks defended Israel’s much-criticised new law saying only Jews have the right to self-determination in the country, calling it “a technical process that has none of the implications that have been levelled at it”.
In his 2013 speech to a meeting convened by the Palestinian Return Centre, Corbyn spoke about the importance of history and how necessary it was for people to understand the origins of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
He then praised a speech he had recently heard by Manuel Hassassian at a meeting in parliament in which the Palestinian ambassador to the UK gave an “incredibly powerful” account of the history of Palestine.
Corbyn then added: “This was dutifully recorded by the, thankfully silent, Zionists who were in the audience on that occasion, and then came up and berated him afterwards for what he had said.
“They clearly have two problems. One is that they don’t want to study history, and secondly, having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, don’t understand English irony either. Manuel does understand English irony, and uses it very effectively. So I think they needed two lessons, which we can perhaps help them with.”
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